You might think Wellington is too cold for sunbathing but the hardy locals will prove you wrong, even in the middle of winter. In fact, this is the best time to watch them soaking up the sun. Wellington is best known for its vibrant dining and cultural scene, but it is also home to around 300 seals who live in a colony just outside the city. Here is my review of the Seal Coast Safari Tour in Wellington which has been taking animal lovers to see these seals for more than a decade.
Our tour began with a drive through the outskirts of Wellington to the top of Brooklyn Hill where a wind turbine swooshed overhead as we took in views of the city, Cook Strait and the South Island. After taking a few photos we set off downhill through private farmland towards Wellington’s south coast beaches. We were treated to our first seal sightings on the Seal Coast Safari Tour not long after we reached the rocky shoreline.
Young pups and some larger animals lolled on a rocky outcrop, wriggling every now and then to get a bit more comfortable as they enjoyed a relaxing midday nap. Everyone clambered out of the 4WD with cameras at the ready as our driver and guide Kent Clark explained we should keep our distance but there was no need to be afraid. Seals are much like dogs: they growl and bark if someone accidentally gets too close. We gave them plenty of space but the seals seemed more interested in sleeping than checking out their human visitors.
After this brief stop our trip began in earnest with an off-road adventure up the beach. We hung on tight as Kent zipped along the soft, slippery sand and kept us away from the lapping waves. Like us, most people come on this tour only to see seals but there is more to this trip than the furry locals. As we ventured up the beach, the region’s stunning scenery unfolded outside the window of the 4WD.
Thick, ropey pieces of kelp draped across rocks like a shawl and the shimmering ocean ebbed and flowed across the shoreline’s smooth grey stones. Sea birds filled the sky with their keening cries as they wheeled overhead, keeping a sharp eye on the ocean in the hope some fish would appear. There is a wild beauty to this part of the coastline and a few hardy souls live in small, simple houses tucked just out of reach of the waves. While the isolation would be a challenge, it was not hard to see the attraction of living in such a beautiful location.
Soon we left the houses behind and after fording a picturesque stream which flowed into the ocean, we reached the tour’s main attraction. Tongue Point is home to one of the largest seal colonies and we spotted one animal after another. Despite our best efforts to give them plenty of space, sometimes this was easier said than done. Many were so well camouflaged that it was easy to miss them hiding among the rocks.
During summer, fertile seals head off to breed, leaving behind the older animals and those too young to be interested in mating. While there can be fewer seals on tours at this time of year, seeing the mighty older seals and cute pups more than makes up for any lack of numbers. The rocky beach was littered with flotsam, jetsam and shimmering paua shells which explained why a group of divers were braving the freezing water. The paua shell is highly prized for its pure and intense ocean flavoured meat and can be collected by recreational divers in limited amounts.
From here we could see the famous Leaning Lighthouse and enjoyed the view with a hot drink and gourmet muffins which appeared from inside the seal mobile as if by magic. Our trip back to Wellington included an ascent through Devil’s Gate, a narrow cutting through the headland. People waited at the bottom of the track to take photos of our seemingly impossible descent through the steep gap. Even though our adventure was nearly over, there was never a dull moment.
Disclosure: The writer travelled as a guest of Wellington Tourism and thoroughly enjoyed this tour.